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Fake news or chilling message? Journalist's disappearance divides Saudis

Human rights activists hold pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Some Saudis are treating Turkish allegations that prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in their country's consulate in Istanbul as fake news.

Others see the alleged murder of Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a chilling message for opponents of the Saudi government and a sign that the crown prince's much heralded reforms are unlikely to embrace real freedom of expression.

Khashoggi, a high-profile commentator on the Middle East, entered the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain marriage documents. Saudi officials say he left shortly afterwards but Turkish officials and his fiancee, who was waiting outside, said he never came out.

Turkish sources have told Reuters the initial assessment of the police was that Khashoggi was deliberately killed inside the consulate. Riyadh has dismissed the allegation as baseless, saying that Khashoggi left the building soon after he arrived. Neither Turkey nor the Saudis have produced evidence to prove their assertions.

For some Saudis, the alleged killing is a story cooked up by regional opponents to tarnish the kingdom’s reputation.

"I cannot talk about these things, but I am sure the accusations against my country’s leadership are wrong. We have enemies, you know," Aziz Abdullah, a law student in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters.

For others, though, it is a sign that Saudi Arabia may be headed in the wrong direction.

Only a few Saudis interviewed by Reuters were prepared to criticise the government openly. But several who spoke on condition of anonymity said the allegations called into question the crown prince's promises to open up the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.

"Everyone is spooked. It's like there are flies on the walls listening to everything. I don’t believe freedom of expression falls at all into the reform plans, just the opposite," said a Saudi citizen in Jeddah.

"But on the other hand, you get cinemas and entertainment. It's like an unspoken arrangement. No freedom, but you'll have amusements. Let's not mistake 'amusements' for freedom please."

A Saudi woman in her mid-thirties described the case as "like watching a movie".

"The government thinks they can get away with things like these, whether he was murdered or kidnapped… There is always this feeling that we need to have our guard up and watch what we are saying. We are not entirely safe," she said.

Saudi officials did not respond to questions about such perceptions.

But they have consistently said they are committed to the course of modernisation charted under Prince Mohammed, which aims to create jobs for young Saudis and make the country a more attractive place to live for locals and foreign investors.

Saudi Arabia's biggest online newspaper Sabq accused the international media, including Reuters, of using Khashoggi's disappearance to try to undermine that reform drive.

"They used an incident of a Saudi citizen's disappearance to attack Riyadh and to try to stir international opinion to distort the bold steps of Saudi towards internal reform and to block the bright, new reality of the region," Sabq said.

"FAKE NEWS"

The crown prince, who runs the day-to-day affairs of Saudi Arabia, has won admiration from Western powers over the last year for vowing to modernise Saudi Arabia.

He has implemented a series of high-profile reforms, including ending a ban on women driving and opening cinemas in the conservative kingdom.

But those moves have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, a purge of top royals and businessmen on corruption charges, and a costly war in Yemen. He has also put all security entities under his central control.

In the week since Turkey alleged Khashoggi was killed, tightly controlled Saudi newspapers have accused Qatar and other enemies of the kingdom of whipping up a crisis over the journalist's disappearance. The aim, they say, is to tarnish Saudi Arabia's reputation.

Saudi Arabia's Okaz newspaper dismissed the reports of Khashoggi's death as Qatari "theatrics," language echoed in a report on Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia. An Okaz columnist accused Khashoggi of pursuing "terrorist objectives" like "inciting public opinion" and "destabilising the country."

"When we first heard the news (of Khashoggi's disappearance), we thought this could be true. Authorities would want him for criticising our leadership," said Fatima, 29, a saleswoman at one of Riyadh's glitzy shopping malls.

"But when the Qatari media said they (the Saudis) killed him, we now believe it is definitely fake news, it is a bunch of lies, this is a game from Turkey and Qatar and both support Iran."

Abu Nasir, a 35-year old engineer, believes Saudi Arabia will change for the better, even though Khashoggi's case has drawn fierce international criticism of the crown prince, including from the United States, his most important ally.

"We believe in the Vision [reforms] and support our leadership," he said. "My kids will grow up in a country that is totally different than the one where I grew up. This is all I care about."

If MbS, as the crown prince is widely known, is to succeed, he will need billions of dollars in foreign investment, and the confidence of local and international banks and companies.

The Khashoggi case has the potential to hurt that confidence.

"It is getting more and more scary to express your opinion, even if you discuss the basic feasibility of a plan, you cannot be sure you will be safe," said one Saudi banker.

Some young people, an important demographic for MbS as he pushes through sensitive changes in a country traditionally ruled by consensus among senior princes, are starting to question the future that has been promised them.

"I started to wonder, have we miscalculated the dream? Will we have to sacrifice freedom of expression for economic development and some basic rights?" said Sarah, a Saudi student abroad.

(Editing by Michael Georgy, Timothy Heritage and Nick Tattersall)

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